WIS Investigates: What comes through the rails of Columbia could - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

WIS Investigates: What comes through the rails of Columbia could be deadly

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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

State rail safety leaders say they see derailments every week, and in two years, there have been three major derailments in the state with one in Allendale, Edgefield and Berkeley counties.

The danger on the rails arises when trains carrying hazardous cargo come through communities and emergency responders don't know what's being carried on them.

"From the time of the derailment to the time we found out exactly, specifically and confirmed what was on the car was several hours," said Tom Allen, Office of Regulatory Staff's state rail safety program manager.

And, for those hours, emergency responders had a frightening mystery on their hands in April, when a freight train derailed in the town of Trenton, located in Edgefield County. Its cargo included hazardous materials, and emergency workers scrambled to find out what was in the train and what might be leaking at the scene.

"It might take hours and every minute counts," Allen said, adding that since the summer of 2013, his office has recorded at least 40 derailments in South Carolina.

The numerous trains that constantly crisscross South Carolina, run by CSX and Norfolk Southern, often carry dangerous payloads, toxic, flammable, sometimes explosive materials that are identifiable by the distinctive placards that mark the rail cars.

"There are a wide variety of hazardous materials flowing through the state," Allen said. "When you do have a state that is focused on industrialization as we have in the past couple of years, we do have those chemicals that need to be routed to the appropriate location."

Edgefield County Emergency Management Director Suzy Spurgeon said that in the recent incident in April, their responders had to wait for Aiken County's HAZMAT team to arrive to the scene before anyone could get close to the accident. The earliest any agency can get to her county is 30 minutes with an hour being the average response time.

“If they suspect HAZMAT, they'll fall back and wait for another team to come from another county,” Spurgeon said, adding that the county's fire department has a full volunteer staff. “They are trained to go into a situation with respiratory gear on and protective equipment on and are trained to read the placards on the side of trains and trucks.”

Safety Consultant Fred Millar campaigns for tougher safety standards for railroads carrying hazardous loads, which routinely come much closer to home than many people realize.

"We have a potential here for mass casualties with a giant fire event," said Fred Millar, a train expert concerning hazardous materials. "These trains literally come in many areas through people's property 20 feet away from people's backyards."

Millar points to recent disastrous fires fed by huge trainloads of crude oil, as well as the threat of other cargoes in places like South Carolina that don't normally see big crude oil shipments.

"Chlorine and ammonia and LPG, which, rail car by rail car, are even more dangerous than a crude oil rail car," Millar said.

In 2005, nine people were killed when a freight train slammed into another one in Graniteville and a toxic cloud of chlorine gas spewed into the air.

Today around the Midlands, WIS Investigates easily identified a giant rolling chemistry set of poisonous payloads passing through our backyards.

Not far from the bars, restaurants and homes of Five Points, WIS identified a load of Phosphorous Trichloride: That's a clear, colorless liquid chemical used in fuel additives. It's corrosive, and it's also considered an explosion hazard.

Off Assembly Street in Columbia, a load of Isobutylene went through while WIS was watching. That's a gas, transported under pressure and extremely flammable. Exposure to high levels of it can kill.

In the CSX train yard off Foreman Street in Cayce, WIS saw a train pulling out carrying Acetic Acid. That's used in dyes, plastics, food additives and insecticides. It's corrosive and dangerous to the skin and eyes and can cause explosions and the release of poisonous gases.

Over in Graniteville, WIS identified a succession of loads:

  • Ammonium Nitrate liquid, a popular chemical for fertilizers. It's an oxidizer, which means that if there's a fire, it can make it more intense or create the risk of explosion.
  • Sodium Chorate is a crystal powder used in cosmetics, but also weed killers and explosives. It's another oxidizer, which can encourage fires and high levels of it can be deadly.
  • Sulfuric Acid, which is widely used in making batteries, steel, fertilizers, paper, drugs and explosives. It's toxic and corrosive and can release poisonous and explosive gases.

"We have photos of these trains coming through people's backyards with the children's swings and play equipment right there," Millar said.

For firefighters, a wreck involving any of these cars presents a precarious balancing act between rescuing people who may be in a chemical spill "hot zone" and their own safety.

"So our first priority with anything -- whether it is rail or a fixed facility at a warehouse or manufacturing facility or on a highway -- our first goal is life safety," said Jason Krusen, special operations chief with the Columbia Fire Department.

Krusen said since the Graniteville disaster, the railroads and emergency responders have improved their lines of communication, developing technology to more quickly get information to firefighters so they know what they're walking into.

"Things have definitely improved,” Krusen said. “That brought to light some issues that the railroad had, and they definitely worked quickly to correct those with technology."

But responders acknowledge, a train wreck in Allendale County in January, which spilled a load of hydrogen chloride, and the April derailment in Trenton, which ultimately didn't spill anything, demonstrated such communication is still far from instant and that there's plenty of room for improvement. Spurgeon said their emergency management department in Edgefield County is working to get the same technology in place that Columbia Fire Department has currently.

"We don't at any given time, don't know specifically what's coming in to the state," Allen said.

State officials said the railroads are cooperating and that it's in their interest to make the rails safer, too.

Millar says only tougher action from the government can bring enough change, and only if the government is willing.

"The governments are really scrambling to try to catch up to this industry and try to regulate it,” Millar said, “and the Obama administration is thinking about new regulations. We should not be optimistic that they will be adequate."

The U.S. Department of Transportation is putting in place a new standard for building tank cars, which will require stronger shells and other safety features. This means existing tank cars will either have to be updated or phased out of service. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx said the federal government is initiating a reporting requirement starting January 2017 to ensure the railroad companies are getting the retrofits completed.

All of the tank cars should be replaced or retrofitted by 2025.

In the near future, state rail safety officials and the Emergency Management Division are planning additional training to work out communication issues.

“All common carriers, including CSX, are required to transport any commodity tendered to them in a safe container. That includes tank cars and other railroad cars that are approved by the federal government for use with the commodities they carry,” said CSX spokeswoman Kristin Seay in a statement to WIS.

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